July 31st, 2018
Some years ago, when I was heading a large foundation that funded projects of all sorts domestically and internationally, it was not uncommon to get a certain kind of call from a group that did not get funded. The plaint: “we met all of your criteria; why did we not get the grant?”
I suspect that any reader of this piece knows that their surprised disappointment reflected a genuine naiveté. In the USA and in many other places, in the philanthropy world, eligibility simply opens the door for consideration. It means that a proposal passes certain pre-defined criteria that open the gate to the consideration stage. It is a very constructive tool for both sides: it should tell petitioners when not to waste their time and saves funders’ energies for the hard work of making choices among the eligible proposals.
Many on-line grant systems do that screening work for us. If a proposal doesn’t fit the formal criteria, the proposal cannot be submitted. Pretty clear and efficient. It may be true that some gems of ideas get lost along the way, we know, but it is also true that this process forces us as funders to pre-think what our priorities are and therefore makes the decision-making more focused.
In fairness, I should point out that because of the vagaries of many cultures and legal systems around the world, this distinction between eligibility and entitlement is often a puzzle to international grant seekers. Their response is not naïve, just culturally bound. In their cultures or countries, there is no distinction. – if you qualify, you get funded.
Now that doesn’t mean that funders are exempt from recognizing entitlements, just at a different stage of the process. For example, if we have chosen to fund an organization, and have told them so and we have both agreed to the conditions, the grantee is entitled to get their funds when promised, entitled to any support or feedback or technical assistance offered, and entitled to have a complete understanding of what kind of relationship and deliverable we as the funders expect. In other words, once we have committed, they are entitled – legally and ethically. [I hope that I am hearing a collective gasp that some of our colleague funders don’t pay when they promise and put the onus on their grantees to guess what will make them satisfied!] In other words, a contract is a contract.
Which brings me to a role that we as funders have in a profound equity issue in the USA about honoring entitlements. American workers have contracts with the government for retirement and health care coverage. Sadly, though, it seems that some politicians act as if they are running a private foundation – where they get to decide who among the eligible gets some money. But they are wrong: We as citizens have put money into government coffers in a legal expectation that when we are eligible we are entitled to that coverage. It was never intended to be considered a “good will” offering of a beneficent ruling power but a binding contract. The word itself is not trivial. We are “entitled” because we have a contract that guarantees it.
Those eligible for social security and Medicare, to take just 2 very real examples, are not grant seekers hoping that they will be among the few fortunate grant recipients. They/we are in the category of already being legally promised the funds – let me say that again – funds that the recipients ourselves have already put into the pot. It is a contract, and just as we funders must honor our contracted obligation to our grantees, so must our government honor the commitment to those who are entitled. It should not be retroactively negotiable with only one side having the power. [See how ‘equity” comes into the picture?].
Entitlement is not a dirty word, nor should it be allowed to be a politically loaded one.
But, the plot thickens: as we look more closely, we see that an even more pernicious trend is afloat both in the USA and elsewhere: to decrease the number of eligible. It starts with excluding “undocumented” immigrants, then those seeking legal refugee status, their families, and then considering adding new means tests or other “objective” limitations to exercise the rights to vote or gather or express ourselves.
In other words, if those in power cannot get around the “entitlement” obligation, some choose to reduce the number of those eligible. It is a slippery slope and plays too easily into nativist tendencies visible in too many countries. Far too many and much too close to home.
Why is this a philanthropy issue?
For ethical reasons, we as a sector believe that commitments matter. If we are committed to sustaining the social good, we know that it is only possible if commitments matter. By us and to us. And for all.
It is also a practical issue for us: there is always an implicit compact between what the public sector should and can do and what the voluntary sector can and might do. Philanthropy doesn’t function in a vacuum. Our capacity, our priorities, and our choices can only make sense if they are understood in the larger context of social good. If, perish the thought, the current governing group in the USA chooses to renege on its contract with the American people, who will be expected to feed the hungry, house the homeless, care for the uninsured ill, and enable a dignified dying? In Europe and the middle East, and here in the USA if there are many thousands of those seeking refugee status – seeking safe harbor from certain death and starvation, who is responsible for the landless and powerless?
One would hope that the first answer is a government that respects its people, preserves their rights and hard-earned privileges, but when that respect becomes tenuous, there is only one sector whose primary mission is the social weal and good, and that is, philanthropy. It is far too great a task for our capacity – financial or otherwise – to meet those human needs in this century. We already have an unconscionable divide between the haves and have-nots; those who have unfettered access to their rights of citizenship and those who must fight for their rights at too many turns. If we don’t stand firm, those divides can become cataclysmic.
Our sector has recently reemphasized and articulated our key role in addressing systemic issues of equity of all sorts. One of the ways in which we must be outspoken, and adamant is to not allow the meaning of words and the obligations of governments to become distorted beyond recognition.
Entitlement is one of those words. Eligibility is another.
July 30th, 2018
Collaborations among funders and between funders and those delivering services are not new. On a professional level, I have been involved with them for over a quarter of a century, and they existed long before I got involved. Now, though, they are very much in fashion, and for good reason. The more we try to address and redress systemic issues, the more it is clear that no one funder or NFP/NGO can ever reasonably expect to solve them alone. Often the challenge is limited financial capacity, but just as frequently, there are needs for complementary expertise, or combined influence for advocacy, and more.
There are many wonderful examples of successful collaborations and partnerships, some of which I have been involved with, and dozens more that I only know about. But there are also many examples of those that failed [including some to which I was a party.]. Some failed nobly – and should be lauded. Their attempts gave us much to learn even if their initial expectations were not met and their assumptions proved not quite right. Others, though, failed because they didn’t do their own self due-diligence before signing on. That failure can and should be avoided. Thus, this post and offer.
In order to help funders, give ourselves the greatest likelihood for success, or to determine if we are well suited to be in a funder collaborative at all, several years ago, I developed a guide for the field. This piece shows that much of the hard work of a successful collaborations must take place before beginning. It also itemizes what “management” needs to be in place and articulates the additional challenges when a collaboration is inter-sector.
While I have produced many “how-to”s, this one, updated regularly, has been the most requested.
Once again, I offer this PowerPoint to fellow funders who request it. The document stands on its own, but needless to say, it is always most effective if presented with commentary. If, though, you are a funder [individual philanthropist or foundation or other funder organization] and would like to receive a courtesy copy, please contact me directly. Your feedback on its utility to your work and in your situation will guarantee that the next edition will be even more useful to our field.
#316 Do [Philanthropic] Ends Justify [Philanthropic] Means? Two Examples of Philanthro-ethics and Equity
July 24th, 2018
A short few weeks ago, I was interviewed by a major media company regarding the New York Attorney General’s suit against the Trump Foundation. While my content was included in their reporting, other pressing international and national news pre-empted my on-screen version.
The NY AG case against the Trump Foundation is pretty solid. Not every illegal behavior identified in that suit would typically warrant shutting down a private foundation, but there were so many other egregious and publicly ascertainable examples of self-dealing, political interference, and more that their case is pretty convincing. I would hope that even those who choose to support Mr. Trump’s political point of view – and choose to overlook his disregard for our democratic and constitutional systems – would acknowledge that illegality is illegality, and this example of [purported] overt abuse is worthy of the AG’s actions.
However, this post is not about the current President. Enough words are already said and written that I need not add more. Rather it is about the last question asked of me in that interview: “At the end of the day, all of that money went to non-profits so isn’t that really the bottom line that matters?” Well, it may be true that the so-called foundation money went to non-profits, but both how it got there and what it was to be used for was certainly not what the law intended, and even more certainly does not justify all of the overt [purported] illegality. In this case, it appears that the means and the end were problematic from the start.
Even these weeks later, I continue to be bothered by the question. I am quite sure that the interviewer fully understood the answer before asking me but felt it important to be on the record to pre-empt a possible viewer rebuttal.
The idea that what we do and how we do it doesn’t really matter if in the end there is a good or responsible or favorable result is, at best problematic. It is problematic to society as a whole, it is problematic ethically, and profoundly problematic for a society based on democratic ideals ruled by an ethical system of laws.
And, given the current state of discourse in the philanthropy world, it is particularly problematic as a mandate for our behavior. To wit [a more promising example]:
In teaching philanthro-ethics to funders, I often use a series of case scenarios. A number of years ago, I added one to challenge us to address inequities in the way non-profit staff of a grantee or potential grantee are compensated. The case essentially asks us as funders if that inequity is our business and if it is, what is our role.
When I first added this case, at least half of the foundation staff participating in courses or at conferences admitted it was a problem but said it wasn’t our business. Their argument was that to get into that would be micro-managing, and we shouldn’t micromanage. Others disagreed and argued that it could very well be an indication of a problematic organizational culture, especially if the top management was very well paid.
As time has gone by, the number of funders who say that the issue is one of micromanagement has decreased, and the numbers who feel strongly that it should matter to us has increased. Indeed, in a university-based course for funders I taught two weeks ago, not one person felt that the issue was inappropriate for funders to address, although not all agreed about the optimal way to address it.
My own position on this is unequivocal. If we ask about the top 5 salaries [as mandated in tax 990’s in the USA], we should be interested in the lowest salaries as well. I am sure that there are some overpaid executives in our world, but I am even more sure that there are thousands of underpaid ones. If we care about equity, why should the important work of our grantees be done on the overburdened backs of underpaid professionals? We decry the challenges of recruitment and retention but overlook some clear fixes.
How one determines what a fair and reasonable professional wage and benefits should be is beyond the scope of this post. But making sure that we as funders ask the right questions is its scope. And, I am absolutely confident that, if we all asked question about staff compensation, training, retention, and career trajectories, after 2 or 3 years, we would find that non-profits’ proposals would consistently show that they are addressing it! [We all know that non-profits get used to answering or anticipating what they think our questions will be.]
Some of you will say that there isn’t money for those kinds of increases – the non-profits are already budget challenged. True – but whose responsibility is it that nfp’s and NGO’s are adequately funded? Yes – ours. A healthy budget is one that allows for success, not one that guarantees unconscionable personnel conditions. We don’t have to fund everything, but we should make sure that which we do fund has access to the funds they need to succeed. [In past lives, I was CEO of non-profits, and dealt with this question as long ago as the early 80’s. It was a challenge then, and still is. Any readers who would like some practical suggestions on how to address staff retention, training, and compensation, even in down times, should feel free to contact me directly.]
Just as the big-media interviewer asked me a question at the end so that it would pre-empt an objection, I would like to address one more matter. Working in the non-profit sector is not a decision to take a vow of poverty. Non-profit is a legal definition of who ultimately owns the assets and, hopefully, about its purpose. None choose to work in this sector to get rich, but nor should they be committed to be poor. It is a huge sector, responsible for education and health care, as well as religion and human services. And lots in between. Moreover, current public policy puts even more demand on this sector as government funding is reduced or eliminated.
For many years, we funders looked the other way so that our grantees could balance their budgets – and try to achieve goals of serving their populations. If it meant that their personnel – the “means” by which our grantees pursued their goals – were overlooked, that mattered less because the “ends”, the social good, mattered more. What we have learned, I hope, is that those means cannot in the long run be justified.
We all have too much at stake for our involvement in the health of public good and volunteer sector, and the well-being of its professionals, for our concern to be dismissed as micro-management. The ends and the means are always interconnected. This is indeed a case of equity – writ very large.
July 5th, 2018
What, you ask? Haven’t you recently been writing about the need for the philanthropy world to address equity, ethics, systemic changes, existential challenges…. you know, the big picture stuff. Is it really ok to think small with your philanthropy?
There are lots of reasons for this pause:
Too many people I have met recently, especially those early in their decision to become self-reflective philanthropists, are finding themselves paralyzed by the scope of what needs to be done. “The needs are so great – we don’t want to waste a penny.” Or, “I keep hearing about making an ‘impact’; we are working so hard to make sure our money makes a difference that we are afraid that we might make a mistake.”.
Let me put you at ease. No one starts out knowing how to be an expert in anything. Just because one has some money, even a lot of money, the process of learning how to give it away thoughtfully, ethically, strategically, wisely, takes time. The vast majority of those with assets to give away took some time to accumulate those assets. And most made plenty of mistakes along the way. Why should we think that the giving gene will just happen?
I typically advise newer funders and philanthropists to take three years of learning. Don’t worry about making mistakes. Don’t worry that your money is being wasted. Don’t assume that you have to know what your mission is, your priorities are, your giving style should be, what kinds of relationship with grantees you need, what are appropriate expectations for outcomes…. Just start.
I also recommend: Don’t make any long-term commitments that create obligation or precedent or expectation. Don’t join any new boards unless you have had a long-time relationship with that group.
Also take that time to learn: learn how to read a 990. Get to know your peers in the funding world. See whether the presentations you receive are sales pitches or genuine and honest articulation of need. [Hint: if a proposal or presentation says “we are the first…” or “we are the only…” or “this project is a guaranteed life changer….”, tread very carefully and slowly.] Learn that NFP/NGO financial statements need to be read differently than for-profit ones. Learn about the decision process of the organization. Get a sense of its culture – toward all of its stakeholders. Learn when a “site visit” gives you information you really need to make a decision, and when it is just because you want to.
One thing you will learn without trying – and it is a lesson every funder learns very quickly. You suddenly become a walking dollar sign, even to long time friends. You already know that you have never been funnier, better looking, wiser, better company. A 24-year-old 3rd Gen of a prominent and very wealthy family once came to me distressed. As soon as she became formally involved with her family foundation, all of her long time personal relationships changed. She wasn’t just wealthy any longer; she was now the source of funds for all sorts of things. She discovered, as we all do, that every time you walk into a room, someone has a project to pitch.
During this learning period, learn how not to become cynical. Or to indulge in your newfound power. After all, by definition, there are more requests than anyone can fund, so we say “no” much more than can ever say “yes.” And most of those needs are genuine. It isn’t easy – either socially or philanthropically.
To return to our starting point: one learns how to fail and how to succeed. If only we could always be right… but after all, by definition, we are funding the future and that is never guaranteed. We learn that even “evidence based” data might be based on insufficient longitudinal questions. This has nothing to do with how much money you have. Simply look at the 9 figure “errors” by the Gates Foundation or the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, to take only some famous recent ones – and I assure you they had the best minds and experts available to them. If you are unwilling to fail, your successes will rarely do more than sustain the status quo.
It is also important to look carefully at the successes as well. Would they be applicable in other settings? Was it all based on a wonderful charismatic leader whose attention span is limited? Are there underlying issues that were overlooked or ignored or even hidden?
Looking at the long term, which experiences were gratifying? At the end of those three years of learning, it is the time to step back to look at all of your philanthropic experiences over that time. Now is the time to see what worked – for you. Which experiences disappointed.? Please note, this process is not about the successes and failures of your giving, but about how you felt about what you did. This is the time to revisit your risk tolerance, your decision making, your preferred relationship with grantees and colleagues, your focus and your priorities.
Which brings us back to the beginning. The overwhelming majority of us are not in the financial league of a Gates or Ford or Rockefeller or the Giving Pledge folks. Yet we can make a difference with whatever resources we have. And that includes even those of us who want to address the systemic issues of which I have been writing about recently.
After all, big picture challenges still must be solved on the local level. If one wants to eradicate malaria, someone must provide netting on the ground. If one wants to eliminate homelessness, someone has to work with many, many individuals to help them establish some stability. If one wants to improve literacy, there are millions of young, and not so young who must be taught – one person at a time.
Once upon a time, most people followed the progression of philanthropy from “compassion” to “strategy” – the traditional “give a fish” vs “teach to fish” metaphor. Only in recent years have many philanthropists learned that the next stage is to address the “systemic”. But In recent years, there are also many who want to start with the “systemic” wanting to use vast resources to address the big picture problems. What they learn, often in a way that can surprise them, is that making sure that those people have that food – fish or otherwise – is the true measure of their success. They learn the importance of the “compassion” stage. Only by thinking “small” can they truly implement the systemic changes they want to make, and that we all need.
Those of us with fewer resources at our disposal can teach a thing or two.
June 26th, 2018
Philanthropy education matters to me – a lot. So, not surprisingly, when WINGS-Worldwide Initiative for Grantmaking Support, an international organization of which we are members, undertook a careful look at what is universal or generic vs what is culturally specific, I recommended that one of the ways to get at this is to develop international philanthropy education standards.
Over 16 years ago, when I was invited by NYU to develop a university based professional certificate program, I consulted with the organizations that defined the philanthropy field at that time. There was a remarkable consensus on what a funder, any funder, should know. And thus, with their participation, we developed a set of core competencies as a basis for the certificate credential. [In retrospect, I recognize that my evangelism for the importance of philanthropy education and certification did not have the same priority for those original partners, some of whom expressed exasperation with my impatience. On the chance that some are reading this, my apologies. It has taught me about the mistakes one can make in making assumptions about a sustaining partnership.]
Those concepts, regularly adapted and updated, have been the underpinning of the part of my career as a philanthropy educator. While only a part of my involvement in this field, that educational role has led me to speak and teach in 39 countries, taught funders from 26 countries at NYU and Penn, and has included funders of all types and inclinations.
The core concepts the field developed in 2002 and updated regularly since still make sense. But, make no mistake, they need to be contextualized for every situation. Scandinavia is not Latin America, and neither is Spain like China. Moreover, family funders are all different even as they are all the same. If one appears to be only US-centric, or oblivious to local laws, history, and culture, it will be hard to get to the underlying universal aspects that define decision making.
A recent exchange with the Ben Bellegy, executive director of WINGS, emphasized the complexity of nomenclature. [Our educational arm, Wise Philanthropy Institute, is a member of WINGS.] Our conversation was about the centrality and necessity of educational competencies and credentialing as an integral component to an international infrastructure supporting philanthropy. He responded that, in his view, US philanthropy is qualitatively different than in the rest of the world. He argued that in the USA, our primary emphasis is on grantmaking, while in the rest of the world that is often only an incidental component.
As I have thought about his observation, I have been struck by how much of his observation is not philanthropy behavior per se but about nomenclature. For example, the word “foundation” can have very different legal meanings and therefore radically different ground rules. “Non-profits” and “Non-governmental” organizations are not necessarily synonymous. Not only are they often different kinds of legal entities, depending where one is, but imply very different concepts of what is “normal” and what is “non-…” normal.
Mr. Bellegy’s concern was that using grantmaking competencies as a basis for internationally endorsed credentials is far too American centric. As I thought about it, I realized that I myself had not been using the “grantmaking” label for several years but not because of its American-centrism. I found it too constricting to describe what we do and what we teach. Philanthropy is about a vision of society, an understanding of the totality of ways in which voluntarism can influence the public weal and public policy and engage civil society toward its betterment. Some of that is through traditional grantmaking, but that hardly describes the totality. Different funders will choose a different balance of how they use their own resources, of course, but most use a robust combination. Moreover, the role of how that manifests is very dependent on local culture, history, ethos, and law. In highly taxed, socially supportive societies like most of Scandinavia, the role of philanthropy will be very different that in the USA which only begrudgingly provides educational and human service support to its citizens.
In truth, while much of what we teach might be called grantmaking, at bottom it is about making choices. If we are competent at teaching competencies, those whom we and others teach are better able to make wiser, informed, and ethical decisions about the abundance of challenges and choices before us. Much of that has to do with allocating funds, but it also has to do with advocacy, creativity, influence, convening, leadership, values, and empowerment. Those are universal characteristics of the field of philanthropy, and not restricted to any one nation, region, or religion.
Having said that, cultures do differ. Laws differ. Histories differ. Politics differ. Families differ. To say that there are universal categories that define all philanthropy is too facile. Unless one honors the differences and the contexts in which those differences play out, one can never comfortably or credibly get to the generic range of choices.
Some years ago, I was honored to be invited to conduct an all-day workshop for 100 philanthropists from around the world. No Americans were invited except for me as the facilitator. The subject matter was trends in family philanthropy, and best practices in succession – what some call “next-gen”. At the end of the day, the chair who was from South Africa stated that before we started, he was skeptical that there was anything to learn. However, as the day progressed, he said, he realized that everything I and others talked about described his own family. He had never realized that their own challenges were generic and universal. He was somewhat liberated to know that his family was not the only one facing certain challenges, but that he also realized that his own community challenges required that he approach those challenges with both a general perspective and local sensiTIvIty. He got the message.
I still believe in the indispensability of philanthropy education as a core component of our sector’s credibility and potential. But as this exchange suggests, just agreeing on terms and nomenclature is itself a challenge, and that is even before we agree on the content of the education. The challenge for WINGS, and for all of us who work and act in this sphere is to learn how to articulate and distinguish what is exclusively local, and what is in fact generic. Some of that has to do with nomenclature, some of it has to do with knowledge. Most of all, it has to do with finding ways to help our sector so that we accomplish the impact and the good that we all stand for.
June 21st, 2018
Readers of the previous post know that we recently spent a few days at an extraordinary Symposium in Greece addressing climate change and the resultant refugee crisis. It was remarkable for many reasons: for but one example, it was the only conference we have ever attended that included two islands plus the mainland. But much more important was the unique combination of participants. Some were world renowned environmentalists or economists or religious leaders or scientists or community leaders. Others have made their mark more locally.
This kind of combination had the intended result of a unique symbiosis of learning, methodologies, and world views. What I found most intriguing was a fascinating divide about what we must do about the profound existential [no exaggeration] crisis the world finds itself in. Among this group, as I reported in #312, there were no deniers, even if not everyone agreed about exactly how precipitous our situation. None, though, argued that it was anything less than urgent.
The scientists painted a universally sobering view of what seems already irreversible, and what may yet await the world if we don’t act immediately. None of the participants disagreed that all changes need to ignore borders, require domestic and international governmental cooperation at a mega scale, mandate systemic solutions, and anticipate radical implications to the social weal around the world.
The real divide, it emerged, was not about the analysis but how we effect change. There was one group whose approach [depending on the vocabulary of the various disciplines] is to start with the individual and extrapolate from there. On the assumption that if you don’t change yourself, you can never change anyone else, there were intense discussions about veganism, the ethics of commercial air travel, how to establish an ethos built on love and embrace of the other, and other micro-behaviors. Some of the participants publicly committed to, and even advocated, coming as close to fossil fuel and animal products free as they humanly could. They acknowledged the social and family implications as the price to pay for modeling a commitment to save the planet. [As people who don’t and won’t own a car by choice or live anywhere where we would have to have one, we are aware that some consider these kinds of personal choices to be quirky or even extreme.]
There is certainly legitimate social science evidence that there is merit in focusing on the personal and individual. Rarely do people get involved in policy change if they cannot understand how it is manifest in their own daily lives. But to paraphrase a well-known aphorism, the attempt to be pure [perfect] can be the enemy of the good. It is almost impossible and not always the most ethical thing to do. For example, there are societies in parts of the world, such as above the arctic circle, where if one eliminated meat, people would simply starve. Moreover, one needs to be culturally sensitive to those in newly developed societies who wonder why they should be the ones expected to surrender their newly earned symbols of affluence.
By all means, social change cannot exist in the abstract. Change only happens when a critical mass of people adopts it. None disputed that individual behaviors writ large matter.
But, many others argued, persuasively in my view, that we no longer have time for a purely bottom up approach. Social movements and community organizing matter, but they take time, and we don’t have it. The only way to limit environmental degradation is by radical and transformative action on a global scale. And that cannot be accomplished one person at a time. Public policy, massive re-alignment of our infrastructure and transportation choices, an economic recognition of the indispensable nature of ESG measures of corporate behavior are the only ways in which the world has a marginal chance of limiting the extremes that are on the not distant horizon.
In our field, the philanthropy sector, it is clear that this latter message has gotten through. [No, the environment is not everyone’s priority, but almost all funders now acknowledge that our work mandates attention to public policy regardless of our funding priorities.] Rarely a day goes by without an email notice of another philanthropy affinity group or association or law firm announcing a webinar or course about advocacy. Some of these focus on legal limitations or the elasticity of advocacy approaches, some on how one can effectively use non-financial resources to influence change, some on addressing the inevitable question of how to evaluate successful advocacy projects. And the centrality of advocacy and lobbying are a decisive important advantage of the newly popular LLC model over classic philanthropy ones.
Make no mistake: as a long term philanthropoid, the new attention to advocacy is not the norm. In fact, not long ago, we used to have to persuade our students, clients, colleagues that they should consider expanding our footprint by funding advocacy, or endorsing our convening role to do so if we are serious about effecting the kinds of changes we believe in. [In my teaching of American funders, I try to show that our very system of voluntarism is in response to a certain type of public policy toward our citizens, and when I speak to international groups I show that their own systems reflect a system of government policies that have a very different understanding of who has what responsibility. In both cases, it is often a wake-up call to their own silo-ed thinking about their own philanthropic behavior.]
The question, though, for our sector is our own sustaining commitment to profound change. We are notoriously time limited in our funding; we have a tendency to shrink from a perceived political spotlight; we talk a better game than we walk in collaborations and partnerships; and we certainly have never fully resolved what level of accountability we should have in our decision making. Yet as we have written about in prior opinion pieces on the pursuit of “equity”, this is not a normal time for the political world, for the earth, and for addressing systemic challenges. If there is even the shred of truth to the implications of the conference we attended, we have no choice if we are to be true to why we exist as a sector.
June 19th, 2018
“How can you say that?” he asked. “We are living in the very best of times. Just look at the data.”
This tweet was in response to my own tweeted handwringing at the precarious existential reality that was so apparent at an international symposium on the environment and refugees. Environmentalists, economists, civic leaders, religious leaders, to mention only a few, gathered in Greece to learn from one another. We were the guests of the Green Patriarch, His All Holiness the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, who has been leading this conversation for almost three decades. This Symposium, entitled “A Greener Attika”, focused on the Aegean and the Mediterranean, but included data relevant to the entire planet.
Unless one willfully chooses to deny the overwhelming evidence [and we know that some in the USA choose to do exactly that!], we must acknowledge that the world as we know it is at great risk. There is a bit of disagreement about how far along that degradation is and what might be done to salvage as much as possible, but there is no disagreement about the bottom line of the crisis. The data from every possible vantage is incontrovertible, and it is big!
And, lest one miss the social implications of this environmental degradation, we will soon be faced with a refugee challenge that makes our current tragic numbers seem tame. Yes, I was distressed, angered, and energized all at the same time, and my brief tweet conveyed exactly that.
The above-mentioned retweeter cited a bit of datum that does in fact show that in one area the world has moved forward. He referred to the numbers of human beings who have risen above extreme poverty and are merely poor. The Gates’ have previously published this info and it is certainly a positive development. [Whether it reflects, as my respondent claims, the superiority of pure capitalism is a matter about which I am more than dubious.]
However, that is far from the whole story. The really big data shows that the number of countries where democracy is at risk is growing. The really big data shows that there are too many countries where the divide between the rich and the poor has reached treacherous levels. The really big data shows that civil society, as reflected by a free press, individual liberties, the rights to voluntarily gather, is under attack in too many places. And the really big data demonstrates that the prospects for emerging from poverty for the hundreds of millions who are in that situation is slim indeed.
And that doesn’t even begin to talk about the really big data about climate change, the melting of the polar caps, the desertification of many historically productive farming regions, the competition for potable water, and our stubborn insistence to live unsustainable life-styles.
I suspect that none of this is news to most of you although perhaps the interconnectedness of it all may be. In a future post, I will report on some of the responses and approaches, but all of them start from a sense of urgency. This may or may not be “big data”, but it most assuredly is “big equity.”
I would hope that none of us in the philanthropy world underestimate the important role we can play in keeping these systemic issues n our minds as we deal with the huge challenges to our field and the world we enable. And not to be misled by true but insufficient data that try to get us to avert our eyes from the true “equity” challenges.
June 1st, 2018
This post is a continuation of a series of considerations of the role of philanthropy in these times of challenge to civic decency, honesty, government reliability, and persistent systemic crises. This one will focus on the role of an advisor/consultant. While, as many of you know, the issues raised in this piece have been on my mind for a while, it is being written in the context of an intriguing webinar sponsored by NCRP this past week on matters of power re-balancing within the funder space.
I spend all of my professional time in the philanthropy space wearing many hats. A small part of that is as an advisor to funders, primarily in the strategy realm. One of the distinguishing features of my work in this area is that, unlike most of my philanthropy advisor colleagues, I won’t take any retainer contracts and don’t help manage anyone’s giving. The value of that to a funder, a family, or a foundation is that I have no stake in the outcome of any strategy approach I help develop with them. Many funders are surprised and delighted to learn that there are those of us who can give independent counsel with no financial stake in the outcome. [We readily refer those who want or need another kind of relationship with an advisor to those whose business model aligns with those needs.]
Concomitant to the independence of the recommendations has been a commitment to neutrality. That is, this part of my work has always been value neutral. My work as an advisor to and educator of funders, I have always felt, should be to help every funder, foundation, or family discover their own core values and needs, and then help them determine how to implement them going forward. My own preferences or biases should be irrelevant.
Recently, though, the above-mentioned webinar and their identification of a group of philanthropy advisors to help guide the field have made me wonder whether that neutrality has been too limiting. The three speakers, 2 of whom I didn’t know but are clearly successful advisors, were all explicitly committed to a values lens in their work. It is a dilemma, for me, at least – one needs to help guide the field and provide thought-leadership during this time of transformation, and at the same time, be cautious not to impose one’s own values and priorities on others. Yet these colleagues seem to have managed to do so quite successfully.
In the past, I have not felt any problem with having strongly held positions in our own giving, in the foundation I used to head, on the boards of which I have been a trustee, in my writings, and in my public speaking. [Some readers may recall one of my proud moments when, in a conference evaluation, one attendee commented on my talk: “I don’t agree with anything he said, but I could listen to him all day long.”]
The question, though, is whether the environment in which philanthropy must function today has changed so profoundly that we no longer have the luxury of neutrality in our advising. In another article, to be published soon after this one, I will address this question regarding philanthropy’s role vis a vis government and public policy. Suffice it to say that every single grant or contribution or investment we make reflects a value. To repeat a thought from above, these are “times of challenge to civic decency, honesty, government reliability, and persistent systemic crises.” These are not normal times, and the stakes have rarely been higher. At the risk of being melodramatic, is it still responsible philanthropy or is it an indulgence to fund projects without addressing the “equity” implications?” And, if one decides that “equity” is an indispensable component of contemporary philanthropy, can one be a responsible advisor if one doesn’t proactively put that on the table?
Ethical philanthropy advising requires deep expertise in the field. That should be a non-negotiable given. But to do philanthropy advising well is an art, relying on that expertise, an understanding of family or group dynamics, uncovering unstated and often unclarified aspirations, and the ability to leave the client empowered to do the good which their resources allow.
The question this post asks: how much of the artist should be in the picture? Or, perhaps we always are even if we think we aren’t.
May 22nd, 2018
The philanthropy field has not been exempt from ethical lapses – some at a headline grabbing level. And these scandals have been seen on both sides of the table: funders and leaders of non-profits have been caught in all too embarrassing behaviors. In many of these cases, the violators were receiving very generous pay packages – greed may have been a driver, but need was not. Many have asked me: how did such a thing happen?
Over my own career, I have supervised hundreds of individuals, overseen dozens of organizations, and been on the board of or funded many others. Sad to say, I have seen, and had to act on, too many instances of theft, abuse, and other ethical lapses. In each case, people have asked me: how did this happen?
My response is the same to both inquiries: in every case of which I am aware, the violations began as very small over-reaches. Penny-ante stuff. Nothing that added up to much, “what is the big deal if I use petty cash for private purposes or receive a small ‘gift’ in exchange for a legitimate contract we would sign anyway?”
What I saw in every case of which I had direct knowledge and seems to have been true in the big picture ones as well, is that the violations began small. Then, incrementally grew. Before they knew it, they became so normal that they stopped thinking about it. After all, no one said anything, so maybe no one cared.
By the time the violators were exposed, the violations added up – to real money, to real embarrassment to all, and to real challenge to the confidence in the ability of our sector or out boards to self-monitor. [Now, before anyone retorts with a “what about… the banking industry or the person who currently occupies the president’s seat or Enron or Weinstein or….” let me say unequivocally that this is not a competition to the bottom. I function in the philanthropy sector, write and speak about philanthro-ethics, and care deeply about the good we can do. So, this is what I feel is appropriate for me to address.
I was reminded of this early this morning: leaving the gym, I happened upon a phone charger on the ground. It was in a public place and was a high-quality model compatible with my own phone. I picked it up, put it in my pocket, and had an internal debate about what to do. There was no way to trace it – it wasn’t the phone, only the charger. People lose these things all the time. At the same time, it certainly wasn’t mine even though I found it in a public place.
I decided to return to where I found it, a few steps from an apartment building, to turn it in. The concierge and I agreed: if no one claimed it within 2 days, it would be legitimate to claim it. Probably a fair solution to an ethical dilemma.
This is not a great hero story. There have been many more noble things I [and most of us] have done. Indeed, I have written about some of these in the past. But it came at a time when we are, collectively, thinking a lot about equity. And it reminded me that, in life, in communities, in organizations, and in personal relationships, the true measure of our values is the collection of the little things.
Yes, it is true that we have real systemic challenges that require big thinking. The environment, public discourse, poverty, racism and xenophobia of all sorts – to mention just a few. These require big actions within our funding sector [see the most recent manual by NCRP for how we might begin to do so], in our advocacy for transformative change in our public policy toward more just and equitable allocation of resources, toward enabling those who have been penalized purely because of the color of their skin or their ethnic background, or their creed or their physical make-up to be treated as full and deserving members of society, to a radical embrace of our fragile environment.
These are all big, systemic, and urgent challenges that cannot and must not be deferred. At the same time, it is important to remember that we show how seriously we take these larger commitments as much by our daily small behaviors as by our ambitious aspirations. In fact, we have learned from social science studies that we are more likely to take the big matters seriously, and be less paralyzed by them, when we see that there are actions and practices we can take as individuals. If we behave properly in our daily interactions, we are more likely to be empathetic to the larger changes the world needs to make.
When our daily ethical behavior has eroded, so has the underlying belief that we are in this together. When we behave only in self-interest, we challenge the delicate fabric which binds us, the connections upon which all of us rely.
But when our inner compass of ethics pushes us toward making good and responsible and ethical and honest decisions daily, even if they are not by themselves heroic, we are much more likely to be heroic and courageous in our efforts to bring about the changes that we, and the world, require.
I sure hope so.
May 15th, 2018
For several days, I have been trying to figure out why this incident bothered me so much.
Some out of town visitors wanted to be tourists for a few hours. Before doing so, they decided, wisely, that they needed protection from the harsh sun and stopped at a street vendor selling caps. They were committed to buying two, and spent some time deciding which “statement” they wanted their new caps to make.
Once they decided, they asked what the price was. The response “$10 each”. They replied, “can’t you give us a discount since we are buying two?” The street vendor hesitated, and then reluctantly agreed to reduce the price by $2. Our friends were very proud of themselves for a successful negotiation.
The episode has made me uncomfortable since then, and I finally understood why. It reflected a deep power imbalance that reminds me of a pattern too often played out between funders and grantees.
I have no clue about the financial situation of those working in that kiosk. It is fair to assume that no one sits out there all day in the rain or shine, heat or cold, if they have substantial financial reserves. Whatever they may charge per hat, I am sure they don’t make very much. Every sale matters.
I am also sure that our friends, wonderful and caring people, didn’t think anything about that when they haggled. The $2 made no difference to their financial well-being whatsoever. For them it was a bit of sport. And in this instance, a small victory made them momentarily happy. And, let me fair, one sees this all the time, and typically we don’t think much about it; our visitors were certainly no different than many others.
Nevertheless, I felt, why begrudge that street vendor the $2 that most probably meant much more to him?
In many parts of the world, that kind of haggling is de rigueur. The initial “ask” is set with the clear understanding that the “buy” will be lower. Both sides start from the same premise. [Ethicists affirm that even that kind of bargaining is unethical if you never have any intention of buying in the first place.] But that isn’t the way most people do things in the USA, and the financial power imbalance is reinforced every time someone with adequate resources tries to do so. One who lives by very limited incremental profit on each sale must weigh the chance of losing a sale altogether. In this example, the original price was not set based on selling to a haggler
I don’t want to make too much of this, but we do see this played out in small ways all the time: in taxis, in restaurants, in hotels… anyplace where workers are paid minimal wages and depend on the good will of patrons to help them along. There may be an occasional story of one of those workers getting rich, but the percentages are hugely against them.
We still see this, sad to say, in the ways many funders treat their grantees. Yes, things are improved and the field is getting much better at it than we were even a decade ago. But too many funders still assume that a grant amount is something to be bargained over, that there is a sense of victory if they can persuade a grantee to accept a lower amount, or have someone else pay for the infrastructure or even part of the project – Why? Just in principle.
All in all, that is bad practice for many reasons:
1. It reinforces the issue raised above – the endemic power imbalance between those who have and those who need.
2. It doesn’t address that the grantee actually needs a certain amount to do the work the funder wants accomplished. It puts the discussion about grant amounts in terms of deal making, not problem solving.
3. It creates an implicitly adversarial relationship between funder and grantee when they and we need it to be collaborative.
4. It leads to grantees feeling that they must oversell their potential success instead of sharing more iterative learning.
5. It assumes that the proper role for the nonprofit sector is to be treated like supplicants rather than professionals with requisite expertise to address social ills.
To be sure, every funder should feel comfortable that an amount being given is the right amount, not too much, sometimes – and, much more typically, not too little. Due diligence is perfectly appropriate. But once that is done, once a funder has decided that this grantee is worth the investment, the rest should be a matter of agreeing on realistic expectations and costs, authentic risk assessment, outcome measures, and more.
Haggling for the best deal shouldn’t be on this list.